Fraudsters use IRS, COVID, stimulus & more to scam elderly

By Bob Kern

        Older Americans lose over $2.9 billion each year to financial exploitation. Fraudsters utilize many different scams to get your money and their tactics constantly evolve. This article identifies some common scams and offer suggestions on how to avoid becoming a victim. It also provides victim assistance resources.
        Some common scams targeting the elderly include:
        Identity theft: Thieves steal personal information (Social Security number, birth date, credit card numbers, PINs, passwords and other bank account information) to drain your bank accounts, incur charges on existing lines of credit, and apply for new credit in your name.
        Never provide your personal information in response to an unsolicited telephone call, fax, letter, email, text message, websites or other social media accounts.
        Never print or write your Social Security number on your checks. Only send mail from the post office or an official postal mailbox. If you receive payments on a regular basis (e.g., Social Security or pension), use direct deposit. Review financial statements monthly for unusual account activity. Always destroy financial mail by shredding before discarding.
        If you are a victim of identity theft, report it to your local police and the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC website ( has a wealth of information, including checklists and sample letters. If you suspect misuse of your Social Security number, call Social Security at 1-800-772-1213.
        IRS tax scams: Scammers impersonating IRS employees call claiming you owe back taxes and are subject to immediate arrest, deportation or property foreclosure unless you immediately pay the taxes. Trust me, if the IRS has obtained a warrant to arrest you, they will not call before they come. Nor would the IRS demand you pay taxes with iTunes or other gift cards. Report these calls or emails to the IRS Inspector General’s Office by email to or on-line at
        Grandparent scams: Scammers pretend to be a grandchild or family member in some legal trouble, or they claim to be a law enforcement official holding your grandchild in custody. You may even hear the “grandchild” crying in the background, but their voice will be muffled so you cannot clearly hear them. The caller demands you wire money to them. The “grandchild” may plead that you do not tell other family members of the situation.”
        If you get a call like this, hang up. Do not provide personal information or financial information. Do not send and money or gift cards, etc.
        Lottery scams: You receive a telephone call, email or a text congratulating you for winning, but you must pay up-front “processing fees” or “taxes” before collecting your winnings. They may generate authentic looking claim certificates to fool you. You may be contacted by an “attorney” offering assistance in collecting the winnings for an additional fee. If you get this call, hang up. If you receive such a letter, tear it up and throw it away. Never give any personal or financial information and never send any money or disclose a credit card number.
        Romance Scams: A popular online scam, targeting victims for over $200 million in 2019, tripling between 2015 and 2019, and expected to increase more with the 2020 pandemic. Scammers create fake online profiles on dating websites or popular social media sites. The scammers find photos which have been “liked” by numerous people, and start sending messages to those people, trying to cast a wide net of possible victims.
        Scammers spend days, weeks or even months cultivating an online relationship, making the victim feel loved or wanted or needed, etc., only to take advantage of lonely people who believed there was a real relationship. The scammers always have excuses why they cannot meet in person. They’re either service members deployed overseas, traveling for business, or have a sick family member/child, etc.
        After the “hook” is set, and the intended victim believes the scammer, requests for money start arriving, small at first, but steadily increasing over time.
        If an on-line friend starts requesting money before you’ve ever met him or her in person, it’s a scam.
        COVID-19 scams: The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a wealth of opportunities for scammers to develop new fraud schemes. Many target victims who are suffering financially from the pandemic, while others focus on victims looking for a way to “get rich quick.” Most scams are similar in that scammers seek to obtain your personal information; utilize high pressure, fast-talking techniques; claim to have some political, religious or military affiliation, and, at first blush, sound believable.
        Stimulus checks: Victims receive a call or email purportedly from the IRS or Social Security, requesting the victim “verify” certain personal identifying information (e.g., Social Security number, bank account number or PIN), to expedite receipt of the stimulus payment. Variations of this scam involve PPP and SNAP payments. In each scam, the caller requests your personal information to verify your application for payment. If you get this call, hang up. If you get a letter or an email ignore it.
        COVID testing kits and vaccines: Virus testing kit scams also hit early in the pandemic. A scammer contacts a victim claiming they can provide at-home virus test kits. People give credit card or debit card account information thinking they are legitimate.
        With vaccines now approved and in distribution, new scams are emerging where scammers claim they can “move people up the waiting list” or have surplus vaccine, and the victim can get vaccinated for the payment of a fee. Again, they seek personal identifying information and banking information, which they use to drain your accounts or open credit lines.
        Remember, if something sounds too good to be true, it is probably a scam.
        A common theme running throughout is, never give out personal or financial information to unsolicited callers or in response to questionable letters and emails.
        Do not open emails from senders you do not recognize. If you open one, never, ever open any attachments or click on links contained in the emails. These links or attachments will likely cause malware or viruses to be downloaded to your computer allowing the scammers to access data on your computer, including personal and financial information, passwords and other sensitive data.
        Always use strong passwords for your electronic devices. Do not use names, initials, birthdates, addresses, but rather, use random characters, letters, and numbers. Mix them up. If you’re afraid you can’t remember them, use a phrase that you’ll remember (e.g., 123IloveJeopardy!!!##).
        Avoid using public Wi-Fi for accessing financial accounts or confidential information when traveling. If possible, use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to shield your data from fraudsters who are “sniffing” public networks for unprotected data.
        If you, or someone you know, is age 60 or older and has been a victim of financial fraud, help is standing by at the National Elder Fraud Hotline, 1-833-FRAUD-11 (1-833-372-8311). This U.S. Department of Justice hotline is staffed by experienced professionals who can provide personalized support to callers by assessing the victim’s needs and identifying relevant next steps. Case managers will identify appropriate reporting agencies, provide information to callers to assist them in reporting, connect callers directly with appropriate agencies, and provide resources and referrals on a case-by-case basis. Reporting is the critical first step and can help authorities identify scammers and reporting financial losses due to fraud quickly, thereby increasing the likelihood of recovering losses. The hotline is open seven days a week, 6 a.m.-11 p.m. Eastern time.
        Vermilion resident Bob Kern is a retired federal prosecutor with over 35 years of experience investigating and prosecuting federal criminal cases, including all types of financial frauds, identity theft, tax fraud, computer crimes and public corruption. At the time of his retirement, Bob was Chief of the White-Collar Crime Unit at the Cleveland U.S. Attorney’s Office, having previously served as Senior Litigation Counsel.
A good rule of thumb for protecting yourself from fraud is to never give out personal or financial information to unsolicited callers or in response to questionable letters and emails. Remember, if something sounds too good to be true, it is probably a scam.


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